Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Amongst the crop of films considered "award worthy" within the last year, "Whiplash" seemed to be somewhat unfairly over-looked in the wake of the quirky but over-rated "Birdman", the essential but maybe-a-bit-too-Downton "The Imitation Game", and the indelibly great years-long achievement of "Boyhood". For sure, it did win numerous awards, including editing and sound editing at the Academy Awards, and J.K Simmons took home a statue or two for his already iconic performance, but one can't help but feel that this is a timeless movie, to which people will be coming back for years to come. The film is certainly not as towering as some of the aforementioned in the acts it depicts, but what it does depict is done with gripping power. Conversely, it's a deep, intense, close-quarter character study of two men's battle of will. It tells the story of Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller, soon to be seen as Reed Richards aka Mr Fantastic in Fox's "Fantastic Four" reboot), a talented and ambitious young jazz drummer, student at a fictional New York Conservatory of music by day, and listening to Buddy Rich on repeat by night. One evening, staying late to work on his routine, he catches the ear of famed - infamous - conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), stalking the hallways, who invites him to join his prestigious band. Their exchange marks the opening salvo of a contest which will run and run. Andrew joins the rehearsals, and finds that Fletcher lives up every bit to his fearsome reputation. Clutching imagined musical notes from the air with his fist if his robot-like antennae detect that a student has missed a beat, or played a bum note, his sole aim seems to be to subdue his charges to the extent that they either better their work, or give up in subjugation. "Not my tempo", he barks, whenever a mistake is felt. Fletcher delights in recounting - and exaggerating - a story of how Charlie Parker was once humiliated by a bandmate, throwing a cymbal at his head when he wasn't up to scratch; Parker went away, and came back as the immortal Bird, arguably the greatest saxophonist there ever was. In a quiet moment Fletcher elicits some personal information from Andrew, which he later uses to humiliate him in front of the whole band. Andrew's determination to succeed grows stronger, to potentially damaging lengths, but the question the film raises is whether perfection would be his reward, or Fletcher's triumph.
"Fame" this isn't.
The idea that a film about jazz drumming could be so electrifying, mesmeric, and thrilling, seems faintly ludicrous, and just wouldn't have been my tempo a few months ago. But "Whiplash" is all of those things. But then, "Whiplash" isn't a film about jazz. It's a war film. With drums and saxophones. Curiously - or perhaps by design - it's reminiscent of Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket", with Andrew taking the place of a beleaguered Boot Camp Marine, and Fletcher in the R. Lee Ermey Sgt Hartman role. Andrew's climactic solo is like a gun battle. The sense of conflict, in this case mainly psychological, but with physical consequences, is palpable. The film takes its title from a composition by saxophonist Hank Levy, which gets several partial airings itself. Music drives the drama, and when the full band is allowed to play more than a few bars, the tracks are fantastic. But this music isn't joyful. There's no casual riffing or jamming here, playing for the sheer fun of it. This is serious business, and the tension can be seen etched on the faces of the students filing in for rehearsal, and silently enduring another of Fletcher's abusive outbursts. The payoff for this lack of, for want of a better word, fun is that when things go right, the release of that tension is explosive (and there's another war-word,)
The movie is arguably - but not particularly - heavy handed in carrying home the message that one must suffer for art, and for perfection, that the emotional collateral damage affecting performer, friends, and family, is unbearable for all but the most dedicated. But Chazelle nimbly makes the isolation of these characters visual. The rehearsal room, the stages on which the band performs, and the very corridors of the Conservatory are dark spaces; characters are bathed in gold or bright white pools of spotlight, often cut off from one another. Fletcher's "uniform" consists of black trousers and a tight black t-shirt, offset by Andy's slightly brighter wardrobe. Every scene seems to take place at night, or in the darkened rehearsal room. Virtually the only scene which does take place in daylight occurs in a diner, and contains a moment of emotional upset for one character. This is about light and dark, silence, such as when Fletcher suddenly halts proceedings, as much as music. Good and evil - or at least nice and not-so-nice. .
Simmons has surely laid to rest the ghost of J. Jonah Jameson with his lauded and awarded turn. But Teller matches him every step of the way, in a much more understated and less obviously scenery-chewing manner. I believe he appears in every single scene; it certainly feels like it. Fletcher gets all the best lines as the villains always do, but Neimann is the quiet, driven heart of the film, a personification of ambition and frustration. Essentially this is a two-header, but (beyond the other bandmembers) the small ensemble supporting cast are excellent too. Paul Reiser is warm, touching and concerned as Andy's father; their movie watching sessions together serve as a gentle counterpoint to the fraught atmosphere of the conservatory. A scene at a family dinner, featuring Suanne Spoke and Chris ("Twin Peaks") Mulkey as Andy's Aunt and Uncle, goes a long way to showing how Andy feels misunderstood and distant from even his closest relatives. Despite only appearing in three scenes, Melissa Benoist ("Glee", and forthcoming as "Supergirl") as girlfriend Nicole is particularly impressive, charming and likeable, but ultimately insecure and heartbreaking.
As with any film about any "specialist subject", there are some disgruntled jazz-heads around who seem to miss the point that this is a work of dramatic fiction, and as such an endeavour it is successful. Moreover, it leaves the viewer with something to take away and ponder. It ends on an ambiguous note; Fletcher tries once more to humiliate - crush - his pupil, on stage in front of a large, influential audience, but Andy defies him, producing the performance he's been seeking all along. Having failed to destroy him, Fletcher conducts him up close, nodding and encouraging, reveling in his charge's achievement. So there is dramatic resolution, catharsis for both characters, after a lengthy, vitriolic journey. Is Fletcher's approval because he has found what he was looking for all along? It's a satisfying "feelgood" moment, and without the hugely predictable riotous applause and standing ovation.
(this is the price of perfection)